Rouhani’s real challenge: The domestic front

Many see the Islamic Republic of Iran’s negotiations with the United Nations Security Council permanent five members plus Germany (P5+1) as perhaps the most difficult test facing the Hassan Rouhani administration. And, perhaps from a purely foreign policy standpoint, this is true: Rouhani, and his Minister of Foreign Affairs Javad Zarif, must extract as many concessions from the P5+1 as possible (especially relief from economic sanctions) while giving as little as possible in exchange (mainly in terms of preserving the core elements of the Iranian nuclear program). While the negotiations face obstacles from both domestic actors within the P5+1 (the U.S. Congress) and foreign allies without a seat at the table (namely Saudi Arabia and Israel), domestic opposition from within the regime to the interim agreement and a final agreement which respects the regime’s “red-lines” is probably much less than many people believe.

Reformists, whose social base which helped sweep Rouhani into office in a “Violet Wave” in last June’s presidential elections, were the first to take a conciliatory stance to resolve the nuclear issue in the early 2000s and to try and get some of the sanctions lifted. Traditional Principalists, who control both powerful elected and unelected centers of power within the regime including the parliament under Ali Larijani and judiciary under Sadegh Larijani, are also open to an agreement which is not too unfavorable to Iran. Certainly, parliament has attached its own representatives to the nuclear negotiating team and considered a bill which could see Iran enriching uranium up to 60 percent for “naval propulsion”, but this mainly seems to be in reaction to U.S. congressional threats of delay-triggered sanctions. Traditional Principalists do not mind playing “bad cop” to Rouhani’s “good cop” in foreign policy, much as is the case in U.S. foreign-policy making.

Even Neo-Principalists and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), considered the most “hardline” on the nuclear issue within the regime, while criticizing the interim agreement have nonetheless not fundamentally opposed it and will likely also support a final agreement which is not too unfavourable to Iran. An article in Javan Online, a publication closely associated with the IRGC, has declared that the interim agreement is “neither Turkmenchay” (considered a nationally humiliating treaty signed between Qajar Iran and Tsarist Russia during the early 19th century which ceded many Iranian territories) “nor a heroic victory”. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself has called for “heroic flexibility” in negotiations and declared Iran’s nuclear negotiating team “children of the revolution” who should not be criticized, another sign that there is some support among hardliners for negotiations and even a final agreement. This is not to say that a more hardline president would not stake out a stronger position in negotiations, but various political currents within the regime do not seem to diverge too much on this issue and there appears to be a tenuous consensus.

Thus, while the resolving the nuclear issue will certainly be the major foreign policy challenge of the young Rouhani administration, it will not be primarily for domestic reasons. Rouhani’s main challenge which will see him potentially collide with both regime insiders and social forces are domestic social issues. Much of these efforts will be channeled through the Ministry of Education, whose chief Reza Faraji-Dana has called for an opening of universities’ repressive atmosphere, and in the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, whose head Ali Janati has called for less Internet censorship and greater cultural freedoms. It is here which we see conflicts beginning to emerge at home, as we have noted in the past (see here and here).

Given that at home Rouhani has relied on Traditional Principalist support (both within his administration but also elsewhere such as the parliament) to advance his foreign policy agenda and to a lesser extent his domestic agenda, it is unclear to what extent a major breach with them would hurt his presidency over all. As we’ve argued in the past, the break within the Principalist coalition during the 2013 election (perhaps as early as the March 2012 parliamentary election) which had gain and held power from 2003 to 2013 was a major factor in enabling Rouhani’s victory. If Traditional Principalists begin actively working against Rouhani on the domestic front, he could see most of his major domestic initiatives undertaken on behalf of his moderate social base effectively jettisoned.

What steps could Rouhani take to off-set this possibility? Akbar Turkan, Rouhani’s chief adviser, has signaled in recent days the administration would like to see a change in parliament to reflect its own political line, meaning that its proxies could try to mount a serious challenged in the 2016 parliamentary election. But this assumes that the Council of Guardians, which just a few months back disqualified regime heavy-weight and Rouhani mentor Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani from running for president, will not mass disqualify the president’s supporters given that body’s rather hardline partisan outlook. It also assumes that Rouhani’s social base will mobilize again for him which, barring some major domestic and foreign policy successes, is by no means a sure bet. Partial or total lifting of sanctions could strengthen the declining private sector in Iran, which is another likely major source of support for the president. Rouhani’s challenge will be to translate any victory on the nuclear issue into a stronger hand at home which he can use to advance his agenda. What this will look like is very unclear at this moment, and uncertainty abounds on the question of to what extent he will be able deliver on the promises of domestic social reforms which were crucial in bringing him to power.